Calf sightings pique interest in right whales

The growing opportunity to see North Atlantic right whale calves on the Space Coast – and the hope that represents for the critically endangered species – has changed everything this year for Julie Albert, an 18-year whale spotter and coordinator of the Marine Resources Council’s North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Program.

Until recently, the trend had been increasingly grim. There are an estimated 441 total right whales worldwide with the population in a steady decline since 2010. Scientists can track individual whales as they move up and down the coast by their unique markings; that’s why trained whale watchers are so important. There are fewer than 100 reproductively active females left, and last year – for the first time in 30 years – not a single calf was spotted.

This year, in contrast, mothers with newborn calves have been spotted off the coasts of Georgia and north Florida, with the recent “polar vortex” expected to drive them even further south, perhaps right into our backyard where they can easily be spotted and identified, Albert said.

“We’re on the very south end of their critical habitat area. They definitely go past Brevard County but it’s very weather-dependent. I know they like their water temperatures below 60 degrees, so a lot of winters where we don’t see anything very likely it’s because it’s too warm,’’ she said.

With the record cold winter in the north, the theory is the mothers with calves, which don’t have a blubber layer to keep them insulated, might travel farther south and into the area, she said.

“We might see more down here. I would say this is definitely the weather where we need people keeping their eyes out,’’ she said.

There are about 150 trained spotters in Brevard, and training sessions have attracted 40 to as many as 100 participants, she said.

The training covers topics including history, biology, reproduction, feeding habits and migration.

The coastal waters off Florida and Georgia have been designated as a right whale critical habitat by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Right whales are typically sighted off Florida between November and April. Originally decimated by the whaling industry in the 1930s, continuing human-caused threats include vessel collisions and entanglements in fishing gear.

Report sightings to 1-888-979-4253. For a schedule of training sessions, visit the Web Site mrcirl.org.

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